|Tony Pastor in all of his splendor.|
It was America’s most beloved—and most heavily romanticize—theatrical form for 50 years bringing inexpensive, wholesome (mostly) entertainment to the working and middle classes of big cities and burbs in the sticks alike. It employed singers, dancers, musicians, comedians, magicians, acrobats, animal acts, rope spinners, and even celebrities fallen on hard times with nothing to exhibit but their presence by the tens of thousands transforming a handful of disreputable saloon theaters and traveling troops into the might industry called Show Business. Vaudeville, as it came to be called, became an unquenchable font of talent that provided the most luminous stars to the Broadway stage, opera houses, recordings, film from the earliest silents to the talkies, radio, and even early television. In fact American entertainment would be impossible to imagine without it.
Yet the man who did not quite invent it, but did more than anyone else to shape it, get it off the ground, and popularize it is all but forgotten to all but hard core show business history buffs. Tony Pastor was the poor son of an immigrant father, a child singer, circus ringmaster, minstrel show side man, song writer, saloon keeper, and finally the impresario of the common people. He was also sentimental, deeply religious, a shrewd businessman, and in the end a hold-out battling the forces that modernized and industrialized his creation.
Pastor was born on May 28, 1837 in New York City and died 71 years later on August 26, 1908 at his comfortable suburban home in Elmhurst, New York. In between he lived and shaped just about every form of American entertainment. His father, Antonio Pastor, was a Spanish immigrant and his mother Cornelia Buckley was a Connecticut Yankee from New Haven. Papa was a barber and part time musician.
The family was hard working and poor during a period of intense turmoil in America’s most rapidly growing metropolis. Clashes between street gangs of nativist American born workers and the mostly Catholic immigrants who packed the tenement districts and who were seen as driving down wages dominated street life. Young Tony was caught between those worlds. On one hand he was a devout Catholic and altar boy on the other a Yankee. Like many of the second generation he was assimilationist, eager to put old country ways behind him and to embrace America with a patriotic passion.
Tony had a natural gift for singing and took to the stage early. The first public performance of this future saloon owner was said to be at a temperance rally at the age of 9. Soon he was employing that talent to help support his family. He was booked for several weeks at P.T. Barnum’s Museum billed as a child prodigy. He was known for memorizing hundreds, eventually thousands, of popular songs, folk tunes, and light classic fare and was able to respond to requests from the audience.
Through the 1840’s and ‘50’s he worked in almost every form of the infant entertainment business. He did his time in the dominate form of touring stage show—black face minstrels—with the Raymond and Waring Menagerie, did acrobatics and acted in skits at Welch’s National Amphitheatre in Philadelphia, an outdoor circus venue similar to the early versions of New York’s Hippodrome. Later he went with one of the early traveling circuses where he got his break—replacing the Ring Master who had inconveniently dropped dead. He was only 19 but took to the flamboyant high hat, tight breeches, and cut-away coat, all of which became trademarks when he went into other forms of entertainment. Ring Masters in those days did more than just introduce acts—he sang as crews changed apparatus in the single ring, danced, and acted in the afterpiece, a theatrical skit after the circus acts were complete, a tradition borrowed from the second act of a minstrel show.
In 1861 Pastor settled back in New York as an attraction in variety shows. He first worked in a dive with no name at 444 Broadway. It was a rowdy working class saloon that offered entertainment on a stage. It was patronized by men only and considered quite disreputable. The preferred beverage was whiskey and fights frequently broke out while the performers were on stage. Pastor was the master of ceremonies and a singer, not noted for the finest voice, but for a commanding stage presence. In addition to singeing any and all popular songs, Pastor wrote parody lyrics to scores of them, which were published in pamphlets known as songsters which were given to the audience to sing along in the style of the English music hall.
Pastor’s songs were usually comic and often bawdy, as befitted the “low” character of the joint. They often employed the racial and ethnic stereotypes of the era. On the other hand his songs celebrated and honored the working classes that were his audience and mocked the swells and bosses. As the Civil War raged he added plenty of patriotic songs to the mix and topical ballads about the war. Among Pastor’s best loved songs from this period were Down in a Coal Mine, The Great Atlantic Cable, The Monitor and the Merrimac, and The Irish Volunteers
During his four year run at the 444, Pastor developed a reputation and a following. It was said that he was so good that the audience even struggled to be quiet through his performances when they were not lustily singing along. He ruled the stage there all during the war. How he avoided conscription is a matter of some conjecture. But by the time it was over and the Johnnies all came marching home, Pastor had saved up enough money to open his own joint.
Pastor partnered in 1865 with popular minstrel show performer Sam Sharpley to take over the rundown Volks Garden at 201 Bowery and after renovating and making improvements re-opened it under the grand sounding name of Tony Pastor’s Opera House. Of course it was nothing of the sort, but still a saloon music hall. But Pastor had plans. The same year the partners launched an annual minstrel show touring company that worked from spring to early fall. Sharpley toured but Pastor stayed in New York as host and master of ceremonies of the Opera house. However, he booked talent form the minstrel troop. Eventually he bought out his partner in both ventures.
While variety houses like his remained disreputable—and subject to periodic outbreaks of Victorian outrage and temporary moral reform crusades—Pastor took note that one group of immigrants enjoyed a much different entertainment venue without the rowdiness and bawdiness of variety. The sturdy Germans treasured their Beer Gardens with their brass bands and classical singers where wives felt comfortable accompanying their husbands and whole families, including children could spend a Sunday afternoon following church services. That appealed to Pastor’s religious convictions and he also figured it was a good business model—potentially doubling the paid customers with the addition of women unafraid to enter a theater.
Pastor started his transformation slowly, first banishing curse words, expelling rowdy patrons and cutting off drunks to avoid fights, and insisting that his acts present only clean entertainment eliminating the bawdy songs and skits that he himself had once sung. He made a point of greeting patrons personally at the door, shaking hands and remembering the names of many regulars, who he pointedly advised to bring the family. He began to advertise shows “unalloyed by any indelicate act or expression…fun without vulgarity.” He enforced a similar policy on his touring show.
Slowly the ladies began to come. Then patrolling them to make sure that they were not prostitutes trolling for johns became a problem. When the shady ladies were effectively banned, more working class women began to attend. He added special ladies matinees so that women could come and not feel threatened by leering, pawing men. But the middle class still shunned what was still a saloon.
Pastor twice moved his operation, each time hoping to improve his broadened appeal. First in 1874 he took over Michael Bennett Leavitt’s former theater at 585 Broadway, away from the rowdy Bowery and in a very respectable neighborhood near the theater district centered on Union Square. Then in 1881 he assumed the lease of the former Germania Theater on 14th Street. The theater was in the famed Tammany Hall Wigwam, a location sure to give him a modicum of protection from over-zealous reformers. More to the point, it did not have its own bar, although a saloon was located conveniently next door where patrons could easily repair for a drink.
But the absence of alcohol sales on the premises made it acceptable to a better class of ladies, middle class matrons and respectable shop girls, if not the grand dames of high society. The theater was also only a short walk from the city’s most important shopping district, then known as the Ladies mile and was an anchor for a new theater district along 14th Street known as The Rialto. To appeal to the ladies he made sure his female stars were outfitted at the height of fashion—and indeed were soon setting fashion—that sent them scurrying to the shops after matinees. Merchants were ecstatic and began to closely follow trends established on the stage. Their symbiotic relationship with the new kind of variety theater that Pastor was presenting also shored up its respectability.
None of Pastor’s female stars was greater, or was more of a fashion icon than his discovery and protégée Lillian Russell. Pastor first noticed in the first of a series of satirical musical plays that he experimented with to alternate with his variety. The show was The Pie-Rats of Pen-yen, a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s hit comic operetta The Pirates of Penznace. The show was only moderately successful and after a handful of others of its type, Pastor abandoned the form to concentrate full time on variety. Helen Louise Leonard was a young classically trained singer from Clinton, Iowa. She was also tall, statuesque, raven haired, and a stunning beauty. Pastor knew he had something unlike the almost bawdy musical hall queens like his reining star, Maggie Cline, The Irish Queen.
He sent young Leonard on an extended western tour to both season her as a performer and to allow him time for him to establish a new identity for her, Lillian Russell, and build her up as an English stage star who he had imported at great expense. Pastor used as his template the build-up P.T. Barnum had given Jenny Lind The Swedish Nightingale back in 1850. When she premiered in his New York theater under her new name, she was dazzling in huge, broad brimmed and plumed hats, elegant gowns that emphasized her ample bosoms and tightly cinched wasp waist, elbow length gloves, and usually carrying a long walking stick or parasol. Her repertoire was, at first, operatic arias and classical songs, similar to that which Lind had popularized. Over time she added original popular songs long on romance without the leering snicker of much variety fare. Men adored her and women wanted to be her, spending good hard money in the shops for gowns and hats that mirrored Russell’s.
|The young Lillian Russell was promoted by Pastor as the "most beautiful woman in the world."|
After a few seasons with Pastor, Russell went on to become the defining star of America’s version of La Belle Époque, the Gay Nineties. She starred on the Broadway stage and toured all of the nation’s finest theaters and opera houses. But grateful to the man who not only gave her a start, but invented her public persona, Russell would sometimes play a week or two at Pastor’s between shows and tours, even after it had lost some of its luster to upstart competitors. Pastor inspired that kind of loyalty.
With Russell mostly gone, Pastor followed up with new female stars in a similar mode, most notably Faye Templeton, known to film buffs as the star that James Cagney as George M. Cohan writes his hit show Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway for.
And speaking of Cohan, his famous family act The Four Cohans were among the many star attractions cultivated and promoted on Pastor’s stage. Others included another family act, The Three (later Four) Keatons featuring young Buster and in his last year Grouch and Gummo Marx trodding the boards as part of The Three Nightingales. Also featured by Pastor were the Irish song and dance man Pat Rooney and story teller George Fuller Gordon each of whom toned down the wild Irish bog trotter and sot stereotypes of earlier acts and promoted a sentimental view of the Auld Sod and a more nuanced, sympathetic comic character. German Gus Edwards was a prodigy for Pastor much as he was for Barnum and he continued to feature him as he grew older and created kiddie skits that were first used as afterpieces for the variety shows and latter continued independently as full scale Broadway shows. In these skits Edwards introduced songs of his own composition including the standards School Days and the Light of the Silvery Moon.
|The Three Ketons, Joe, Myra, and Buster were Pastor comedy stars.|
Other Pastor alumni included Weber and Fields, Sophie Tucker, Eva Tanguay, Blossom Seeley, Benny Fields, May Irwin and Eddie Leonard. Ben Harney and other musicians introduced a new musical craze—rag time—which would come to define the early vaudeville era.
Just as Pastor’s theater was at its height in the 1890’s he found himself rudely challenged by an upstart impresario who some also call the Father of Vaudeville because he invented the business model on which it matured.
R. B. Keith had opened the Bijou theater in Boston in 1885 and introduced the continuous variety show which ran from 10:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night, every day. Previously, shows ran at fixed intervals with several hours of downtime between shows. That kept theaters busy and selling tickets at all times. He also established the first vaudeville circuit by which he kept troops of performers constantly moving every week or two weeks through a chain of theaters which were either owned by him or who signed exclusive contacts with him. The rapid growth of these circuits including new competitors like the Orpheum tended to freeze out independent operators like Pastor making it harder and harder for him to book top talent for his own stage. Pastor was even more appalled in 1896 when Keith obtained the exclusive American rights to the Lumière Brothers projection apparatus and their film output and followed up with exclusive rights to the films of the new Biograph studios. That made motion pictures a part of a standard vaudeville bill—a part that would in the next three decades crowd out and ultimately replace the live shows.
Yet Pastor resisted either establishing his own circuit or joining an established one. He made a valiant fight for the rights of independents and gained a new nickname, Little Man Tony.
Pastor also resisted the use of the name vaudeville, a term of hazy French origin first used by Sergeant’s Great Vaudeville Company of Louisville, Kentucky in 1871. It was the same rowdy, bawdy kind of show the Pastor had first appeared in during the Civil War. Modern vaudeville is usually credited to Pastor a decade later when he separated the saloon from the theater and instituted his clean, family friendly format that set it apart from Burlesque which was developing along parallel lines descending from the common saloon variety shows. Pastor had used the term in some of his earliest advertising for is 14th Street theater, but soon abandoned it charging the term was un-American and “sissy and Frenchified.” This criticism mounted with the emergence of Keith’s circuit, which promoted itself as vaudeville. To Pastor what he put on was always just plain old Variety.
Pastor continued producing—and personally hosting—his shows right up to the end of his life despite the fact that other New York theaters were able to offer top talent and bigger named stars. But after he died in 1908 his heirs and partners quietly closed the theater in which so much show business history was made.